The Confused Parent's Guide to Car-Seats

Why oh why are car-seats so complicated? We finally cracked the code so you can install or reinstall your kid's seat with confidence.

Boy in car seat Priscilla Gragg

When Adrienne Penake's son, Brandon, developed a high fever and began wheezing one night, the San Mateo, California, mom knew she had to get her 11-month-old to the local urgent-care center. There was just one problem: "My husband, Dave, and I had taken the car seat out of my car a few days prior and hadn't set it back up yet. That night, Dave wasn't home and I was unable to connect the clips to the latches in my car," Penake recalls. "After many tries, I just couldn't do it. In a panic, I had to borrow the car of a friend who has kids the same age as mine to get Brandon to the doctor."

Struggling to install a car seat is tough enough on a good day. When you're in a hurry, it can be next to impossible. The LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system was supposed to solve all that. Mandated by the government on child-safety seats and most vehicles manufactured after September 1, 2002, in an effort to simplify seat installation, the system still has a long way to go.

Parents aren't the only ones frustrated. So are Child Passenger Safety (CPS) technicians and instructors -- the very people trained to make sure your car seat is safely installed. An AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety survey found that about one third of the CPS techs and instructors reported that parents are less likely to install the seat correctly using the LATCH system than with a seat belt, and 81 percent say that these errors are not obvious to parents. What's more, 55 percent of respondents say they think LATCH needs to be improved.

It didn't help when the 2014 revisions on weight-labeling for LATCH came out. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) now requires the label to essentially warn parents not to use the lower anchors of LATCH once the child and the seat combined reach a weight of more than 65 pounds. Why? With car seats getting heavier, the concern is that the excess weight could cause the lower anchors to detach during a crash. Once your child exceeds that maximum weight, he can continue to ride in the seat, but you will need to stop using the lower anchors and switch to a seat belt. You should still use the top tether, if possible.

The sad fact remains that with or without LATCH, three out of four car seats are installed improperly, according to NHTSA. "Many parents fail to read both the car-seat instruction manual and their vehicle manual," explains Jennifer Ryan, AAA's director of state relations. "You need to look at your vehicle manual's seat-belt section, LATCH section, and car-seat-installation section."

Since all car seats can also be installed with a seat belt, is using LATCH worth the hassle? It's not a hassle if you have the right vehicle-and-car-seat combination, says Benjamin Hoffman, M.D., a Portland, Oregon, pediatrician, injury-prevention specialist, and CPS technician. But determining that can be tricky; there's no database for parents to consult, and we have to rely on trial and error, he adds. This is why it's so important to get your car and seat checked by a CPS tech to determine how to best install it (find one at cert.safekids.org). For now, be sure you're not making these mistakes before you take your next ride.

For babies and toddlers

baby in car seat Priscilla Gragg

The rule A child should be in a rear-facing seat from birth until age 2 or until he reaches the upper weight limit of his rear-facing seat.

Install it right

Use either the lower anchors or the seat belt -- not both. Some parents believe that using both methods will make their child doubly safe. "But most manuals will tell you that this has not been tested and therefore should not be done," says Dr. Hoffman.

Start with the rear-center position. "We have always told parents that the safest spot is the center of the backseat, but many vehicles only have LATCH connections for the side seats," says Jessica Jermakian, senior research scientist at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), in Arlington, Virginia. As a result, parents of rear-facers are often forced to use the center seat belt instead, which is still safe but sometimes not as easy. An alternative is to put the seat in the middle, borrowing a LATCH anchor from each side position, which only some vehicles will allow. The drawback to this workaround is that if you have more than one child you can't install another restraint in that row.

Position the seat where you can get the tightest fit. "Start with the car seat in the center -- again, if the vehicle manufacturer allows it. But if you can't get a tight fit, move it to either side," says Julie Prom, a certified CPS instructor and child-safety advocate in Chicago. "A good fit on the side is better than a bad fit in the center." That means the seat should move less than an inch from side to side or front to back.

Lock the seat belt into position. If you're using a seat belt instead of the lower anchors, make sure you pull the seat belt all the way out to switch it into locking mode; this way the belt will stay locked when you install the seat. Your car's owner's manual can help with this.

Position your kid. The harness straps that hold your child in place should be snug, and the chest clip should be at the child's armpit level to keep straps from sliding off the shoulders, explains Dr. Hoffman. "The clip is especially important for rear-facing children who can be ejected if it's not in the proper position," he adds. The harness straps also need to be threaded through the correct slots -- for rear-facers, this means the slots that are at or below the shoulders. "In a crash, the harness will prevent the rear-facing child from sliding up the back of the seat," says Dr. Hoffman. "You want the child to stay tucked inside so that he's cocooned by the seat and all of the crash's force is spread over the entire back of him."

    For bigger kids

    The rule Once your child reaches the upper weight or height limit of her rear-facing seat, switch her to a forward-facing seat with a harness until she reaches that seat's weight limit or height restriction.

    Install it right

    Wait as long as possible to switch to a front-facing seat. "As you move from one stage to the next -- from rear- to forward-facing and from forward-facing harness to booster -- you lose protection," says Dr. Hoffman. "Make these changes only when you have to -- because your child has reached the maximum size and weight limit of your seat, not because she's at the minimum limit and you can."

    Always use the top tether. In a 2013 IIHS survey, certified CPS techs observed parents using the top tether anchor only 56 percent of the time, and those seats installed with a seat belt were especially likely not to be tethered. "Using the top tether for a forward-facing seat is a must, whether you use the lower anchors or the seat belt," says Prom. "It stops the seat from moving forward by 6 or 8 inches and decreases the risk of head injury," explains Prom.

    Check for the correct tether connection. Another factor involved in tether use is its location. Parents are more likely to use the top tether when the tether anchor is easy to find, found the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. This is often the case in sedans, which typically have tether anchors on the rear shelf behind the backseat. As we explain in "Making Sense of LATCH" on the next page, in minivans and SUVs the top tether anchor could be on the floor, on the middle or lower seat back, in the cargo area, or on the ceiling. In fact, it's not unusual for a parent to attach the tether to the wrong hardware, such as a cargo hook, Jermakian says.

    Position your kid. In a forward-facing seat, the harness straps must be threaded through the slots that are at or above the shoulders.

      For kids in boosters

      The rule Once your child turns 5 and outgrows the upper weight or height limit of the forward-facing harness seat, use a belt-positioned booster until he's 4 feet, 9 inches and between 8 and 12 years of age.

      Install it right

      Choose the right booster for your child. High-back boosters provide more side-impact protection for smaller kids and help position kids better, especially if they fall asleep in the car. They're also a better choice in vehicles that have no head restraints, such as a pickup truck with bench seats, says Ryan. Older kids prefer backless boosters, which are less obvious, and that's fine. But use a high-back seat for as long as you can.

      Secure the booster seat in your vehicle. Says Dr. Hoffman, "A booster without a child sitting in it can become a projectile in a crash." Many booster seats now come equipped with LATCH connectors that can prevent this from happening. Without those connectors, you should instead buckle the booster in, even when your child's not using it.

      Position your kid. Both seat belt components -- the shoulder and lap belts -- must be in the proper location at the moment of a crash to protect effectively. The shoulder belt needs to travel across the collarbone and breastbone (never tucked under the arm or behind the back), while the lap belt needs to lie on the lower part of the pelvis, and not on the soft part of the belly.

      Don't move your child out of a booster too soon. "That 4'9" recommendation to move to a seat belt is not a hard-and-fast rule," explains Dr. Hoffman. "The average height of an 8-year-old is only 4'2", and most kids don't hit 4'9" until they're closer to 11 years old. Meanwhile, some may have long legs while others have a long torso, so the seat belt is not going to fit them both the same."

        Making Sense of LATCH

        Lower anchors
        These are the small bars in the space between the rear seat backs and the seat cushions; they're used for installing forward- and rear-facing seats

        Lower anchor strap
        Attached to the bottom of the car seat, the strap has two hooks or buckles, one on each side of the seat.

        Top tether anchors
        These metal loops can be on the shelf area near the rear window. In minivans and SUVs, they may be on the floor, under the seat, on the ceiling, or, in this photo, on the back of the seat.

        Top tether strap
        It comes from the top of the car seat and has one hook or buckle at the end.

          Readers' favorite seats

          Experts say that the "best" car seat is the one that fits your child and your car. "If you can't install it correctly in your vehicle, it doesn't matter how it did in crash tests or how easy it is to use," says child-safety advocate Julie Prom. Find that out by trying the car seat in your vehicle before you commit -- even if that means you have to buy it and return it. Take recommendations from other parents who love their car seats. (Just understand that same model may not be the right match for your vehicle.) Some seats worth a look:

          Infant seats

            • Britax BOB B-Safe has push-button lower anchor connectors as well as an easy-to-adjust, tangle-free harness. $200; toysrus.com
            • Cybex Aton is lightweight and has LATCH guides to help make installation easier. $250; buybuybaby.com
            • Chicco KeyFit 30 has bubble level indicators on the seat base and LATCH connectors that don't require superhuman strength. From $190; amazon.com

              Convertible seats

                • Evenflo Symphony LX has easy LATCH connectors and intuitive details like a harness that slides easily for an accurate fit. From $160; walmart.com
                • Britax Marathon/Boulevard/Advocate models are available with a ClickTight system that allows you to skip the lower anchors altogether and in a few quick steps get a really secure installation using the seat belt. $330 to $420; toysrus.com
                • Chicco NextFit requires just two pulls on the LATCH connector straps for a secure fit and has nine recline positions to achieve the correct angle. $300; target.com
                • Diono Radian RXT is universally popular because it's easy to install and its low profile makes it easy to get rear-facing toddlers in and out. $340; toysrus.com

                  Booster seats

                    • Eddie Bauer Combination Booster (formerly the Safety 1st Summit) has a high back, a three-position recline, a cup holder, and pivoting armrests that make getting in and out easier for kids. $120; target.com
                    • Clek Olli backless booster has easy-to-maneuver LATCH lower anchor clips and extra seat padding that keeps bottoms comfortable. Starting at $100; shop.clekinc.com
                    • Safety 1st Incognito is perfect for reluctant big kids because it's backless, armless, and comes in four colors designed to blend in with vehicle interiors. $20; safety1st.djgusa.com

                      How to Install a Car Seat

                        Originally published in the September 2015 issue of Parents magazine.